Delivery of Care

100 years of advocacy for mental health

The Mental Health Association of Rhode Island celebrates its 100-year birthday with a number of awards for community advocacy and activism

Photo by Richard Asinof

Jessie Litwin performs "Rivers and Roads" as a tribute to her friend, Kevin Mayer, who committed suicide in 2015, at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/21/16
The Mental Health Association of Rhode Island held its 100th anniversary celebration, saluting many of the community heroes that led the struggle for parity in mental health care.
When will the Providence Place Mall install suicide prevention barriers on its rooftop and secure the access points? How can there be better care provided for children with mental health issues by creating services that fit within a continuum of care, and don’t swing from normalcy to crisis? What is the role of toxic stress and the way that the brain is rewired as a result? What is the correlation of lead poisoning of children and later behavioral health issues in adolescents? When will our correctional facilities stop serving as warehouses for those will mental health diagnoses?
All too often, there is a lack of convergence, conversation and connection when it comes to talking about mental health and behavioral health issues in the context of everyday life. Some of it is related to stigma, but much of it is related to the silos that exist in the way we see ourselves interacting with the world around us. We are, as one pediatrician told me recently, fish who swim in the water but don’t see the water. The narratives we create for ourselves don’t necessarily intersect with other competing narratives.

EAST PROVIDENCE – Jessie Litwin sang a moving tribute to her friend, Kevin Mayer, who committed suicide in 2015, at the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island annual celebration on Nov. 16 at the Metacomet Country Club, marking the 100 year anniversary of the advocacy organization.

The song, “Rivers and Roads,” included the lyrics: “Nothing is as it has been, and I miss your face like hell.”

Litwin received a standing ovation. Her performance captured the poignancy of the advocacy efforts around mental health.

The first honoree to follow Litwin to the podium at the gathering was NBC10’s Barbara Morse Silva, who received the anti-stigma award, presented by Meghan Clingham, the Mental Health Advocate for the State of Rhode Island.

Silva shared that her willingness to speak out about the stigma surrounding mental health came from her own close associations with suicide: her mother, her ex-husband and her best friend had all taken their own lives.

[So, it was then eerie to learn that earlier that evening, a 31-year-old Woonsocket man had jumped from the top level of the Providence Place parking garage, the second such suicide in two months.]

The chimes of freedom
Mary Harrington, a member of the board of directors of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island, shared with more than 75 attendees in the audience a history of the organization, which began in 1916, as well as the parallel history of mental health care in Rhode Island, beginning in 1847 and ending in 1953.

That was the year that the National Committee of Mental Hygiene [what then became the Mental Health Association, and now Mental Health America, the local organization's parent] commissioned the casting of a bell to symbolize its mission. The bell was made from the chains and shackles that had once restrained people living with mental illness in institutional care for across the U.S.

The “Bell Award” recipient in 2016 was Dr. Gregory Fritz, chief of Child Psychiatry at Lifespan and president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Fritz talked both about the progress that had been made and the challenges that remained in advocacy for mental health.

Fritz also expressed his worries about the incoming Trump administration, citing a quote from Stephen Bannon, the new chief strategist in the White House, who was reported to have said in 2015 that the way to cure mental illness was “spank your children more,” to the literal gasps of many in the audience.

The other award winners included:

Rep. Eileen Naughton, the Clarice Gothberg Award for Advocacy, which was presented by Ruth Feder, the executive director of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island. Naughton was defeated in the primary this year and will not be returning to the R.I. General Assembly.

Charles Feldman, the Elizabeth Earls Consumer Advoacy Award, presented by Mary Harrington.

Butler Hospital, the Isaac Ray Community Partner Award, presented to Dr. Lawrence Price, the hospital president, by William Waters, the immediate past president of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island.

Achieving parity
One of the major advocacy efforts that the Association is championing during the upcoming year is what’s known as the RI Parity Initiative, to overcome the continued lack of parity in mental health treatment, despite the existence of both federal and state parity laws. The website for the campaign can be found at riparity.org.

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